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Lev Golinkin on Russia’s New Offensive & War Crimes in the Donbas by Both Sides over Past 8 Years

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Austria’s Chancellor Karl Nehammer said he fears Russian President Vladimir Putin will intensify the brutality of the war, as Russia prepares to launch a major offensive in eastern Ukraine, after the two leaders met on Monday. This comes as thousands of Ukrainians continue to flee the eastern region, though many are afraid to leave by train after a missile attack on a train station in the Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk killed at least 57 people on Saturday. We speak with Ukrainian American journalist Lev Golinkin, who details the years-long assault on the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas and how the people of Donbas have been under attack by both Russia and the U.S.-backed government in Kyiv. He also speaks about the origins of the Azov Battallion, a neo-Nazi wing of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, which has received funding and training from the U.S. government and is now being platformed by prominent U.S. news organizations.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Austria’s Chancellor Karl Nehammer met with Vladimir Putin in Moscow Monday, becoming the first European leader to meet with the Russian president since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The chancellor said he fears Putin will intensify the brutality of the war as Russia launches a major offensive in eastern Ukraine.

CHANCELLOR KARL NEHAMMER: [translated] I generally have no optimistic impression that I can report to you from this conversation with President Putin. The offensive in eastern Ukraine is evidently being prepared on a massive scale, which is why I made very clear that stable access for the International Red Cross is needed.

AMY GOODMAN: Thousands of Ukrainians have been fleeing eastern Ukraine ahead of the Russian offensive, but many are afraid to leave by train, after a missile attack on a train station in the Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk killed at least 57 people and wounded at least 100. The crowded train station was packed with civilians trying to flee the area. UNICEF says nearly two-thirds of Ukraine’s children have been displaced by the fighting.

Earlier today, Russian President Vladimir Putin defended his decision to invade Ukraine, saying it’s needed to protect Russian-speaking people in eastern Ukraine. Putin said, quote, “Its goals are absolutely clear and noble. It’s clear that we didn’t have a choice. It was the right decision,” he said.

We’re joined now by Lev Golinkin. He is a Ukrainian American journalist who’s reported extensively on Ukraine for years, the author of A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka: A Memoir of Soviet Ukraine. His article in The New York Times last month was headlined “The Ukraine of My Childhood Is Being Erased.” He came to the U.S. as a child refugee from the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. It was Kharkov in 1990.

Lev Golinkin, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, but under terrible circumstances. Can you talk about your city, Ukraine’s second largest, the city of Kharkiv in the east, and what’s happening right now?

LEV GOLINKIN: Hi. The city is — I mean, it basically is in a siege mentality. The mayor says things are — people are remaining calm, but there’s only so much calm you can have. There’s been so much just not only bloodshed, but symbolic attacks. For example, a Holocaust memorial outside the city, where the Nazis killed 15,000 Jews in just the space of two days, has been bombed, and the memorial has been damaged. The synagogue that was shut down there at the time that I was living there — the Soviets shut down the synagogue; they tamped down on all religion and cultural life. And now there’s stories of it being shelled. So, once again, here’s Moscow shutting it down with violence.

And it’s just — and bear in mind, this is the city where the overwhelming majority of the population is, like I am, primarily and originally Russian-speaking. These are Russian-speaking Ukrainians. These are the people that Putin is saying he’s going to be saving. And they’ve either fled and are refugees, or a lot of them — the elderly, the disabled, the poor, the sick — they’re the ones who are staying behind. And these are the people who are now in terror of what Putin is saying is a liberation.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk more about that, because I don’t think people quite understand. Like I said, you grew up in Kharkov, which is called Kharkiv right now, and that Putin is saying he’s saving the Russians in Ukraine. Talk about how many of people who actually their first language is Russian in Ukraine. In fact, the president, his first language was Russian. He is an ethnic Russian.

LEV GOLINKIN: Yeah. I mean, I wouldn’t even — I don’t even know — it’s very hard to compare the difference between ethnic Russian and ethnic Ukrainian. There’s a lot of intermix in the eastern Ukrainian part of it. But put it this way: These people are citizens of Ukraine. They were born in Ukraine. Russian happens to be their primary language, much like people in Canada who speak French and who are Canadian citizens. And these are the Russian speakers that Putin is saying that are currently being oppressed and that he’s liberating.

And, Amy, the problem with this narrative — and this is what’s leading me to a rather dark area — is that Putin needs this victory. He is saying that these people in eastern Ukraine, they are our brothers, they are our Russian speakers, and they are being oppressed and held in Ukraine, and we are liberating them. The notion of that was that people would open the city gates and welcome everybody and welcome the Russians with flowers. They’re not doing that at all, because, of course, they’re being bombed. Why would they be welcoming anybody who’s bombing them?

So, the problem then becomes from Putin’s narrative, which is, “These people are our brothers, and they’re waiting for us to save them.” And then, why aren’t they — why aren’t they celebrating being saved? Why aren’t they rejoicing? And the explanation that they’ve been coming up with on Russian propaganda websites and on Russian media is that the people in eastern Ukraine, the ones that are supposed to be being saved, they’ve actually been brainwashed by Russia and by — by America and by George Soros and by western Ukrainian nationalists.

So these people, now the story is that they’ve been brainwashed, and they need to be cleansed — with “cleansed” being the operative word here. That opens you up to a whole new level of war crimes, because people — it’s hard to justify bombing people who are supposed to be your brothers and sisters, but now that you’re talking about these people who have been brainwashed, who now pose a danger, now that opens up a whole lot of possibilities that are terrifying, because the construction of this now is that these people can be killed, which is exactly what they’re doing.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you can talk about the war crimes now alleged on both sides, Russian and Ukrainian?

LEV GOLINKIN: Please understand this, as somebody who’s been following this: Russia didn’t start this war crimes now. Over the past eight years, the people of Donbas, the industrial heart of Ukraine, have been the victims of war crimes on both sides. Both sides have used cluster bombs. Both sides have used Grad missiles, which are basically just — just have no — they’ll just go up, and they’ll just fall over a population. They’re not aimed at anybody, and they just kill people. Both sides have unleashed gangs of psychopaths that have been raping, have been torturing, have been withholding supplies, have been blocking food from areas.

So, Russia is right now committing a ton of — I mean, the entire invasion is a war crime. It’s like it’s talking about specific ones. It’s actually really just all of — none of this would be happening if Russia didn’t invade. So, the whole — the primary invasion, that’s a war crime here. But just understand that there’s just been horrors committed, and often very quietly, on both sides. For example, Donbas is now one of the most, if not the most, heavily landmined area in the globe — on the globe. And this is just — this is incredible. Like, people just don’t understand, but this is — both sides have been spreading mines everywhere, without leaving maps, and villagers on either side of the conflict have just been blown up, quietly, over the last eight years. You just hear a report here, a report there. But it’s just — it’s millions of people who have been — who have had their lives destroyed between this fighting.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Lev Golinkin, you keep talking about over the past eight years. Let’s talk about the history, as it becomes clear, the Austrian chancellor, you know, meeting with Putin for over an hour and coming out and saying it’s going to be brutal, we can’t stop this, it’s going to be in the east. And it didn’t just take him saying this. Talk about the last eight years, for people who don’t understand the Donbas, what it means, why it’s distinct from the rest of Ukraine.

LEV GOLINKIN: The people of Donbas have more in common with western Pennsylvania and Ohio than they do with Moscow or Kyiv or Washington or anybody else. They are proud to be miners. They’re industrial. They are steelworkers. They are — you know, you can tell a lot by what people call their sports teams. You know, there’s certain places in America where you would have the Steelers, the Packers. And that’s in places where such occupations are very valued and where they’re seen as honorable occupations. And it’s the same thing. Like, I mean, my city, Kharkiv, the soccer team is called Metalist, the metalworkers. You know, Donetsk is Shakhtar, the miners. So, these are people who didn’t have a problem with anybody and would rather have just been left alone and just been able to work. That’s pretty much all they wanted. They have very little to do with either Kyiv or Moscow or anybody else.

There has been an insurrection there since 2014, where the Maidan Uprising, that started — that was in the winter of 2013, 2014 — resulted in the ouster of Yanukovych, who was the elected president. And he was a president elected by eastern Ukrainians, people like in the Donbas, people in Crimea. After he was ousted, there was a lot of unrest, because he was their president. He was a spectacularly corrupt politician, but he was their spectacularly corrupt politician. So, there was a lot of unrest. Russia fed into that unrest and provided weapons, provided soldiers, provided guides. And this, in turn, led to an uprising in Donbas. Ukraine, which already lost its territory because Russia seized Crimea, went to suppress the uprising. And from that point on, Donbas, this industrial heartland, turned into — I mean, if you look at it, it just turned into an apocalyptic wasteland, with both sides just funneling psychopath mercenaries, funneling weapons, bombs, mines, and just destroying the entire area.

And what’s been extraordinarily frustrating for me is, I would watch Russian media — I would look at that — and the Russian media would be weeping about the horrible things that Kyiv is doing. And I would look at Ukrainian media, and Kyiv would be weeping about the horrible things that Russia is doing. And it’s like, on a daily basis, both sides have just decimated these people of Donbas, while simultaneously pretending to care about the welfare of the people of Donbas.

AMY GOODMAN: OK, let’s talk about Azov for a minute, once again, this battalion within the Ukrainian National Guard. You know, sometimes you can watch CNN, for example, and in the upper right, when they’re showing video, B-roll of destruction, it says “Azov.” And I was wondering if you can explain what this battalion is and what role it’s playing right now in places like Mariupol and other areas in the east.

LEV GOLINKIN: Sure. It was formed out of several neo-Nazi gangs in the time of the Maidan Uprising. When the separatists in Donbas — when the Russian-backed separatists rose up, Ukraine didn’t have an army. Basically, the army was decimated after two decades’ worth of corruption. I think there were something like 6,000 soldiers. That’s it. Like, the New Jersey National Guard has more. The people who stepped forward to fight were the radicals. They’re always the ones who are the most prepared to kill and the most prepared to die.

Azov was the battalion that was formed out of there, and it became one of the battalions, one of the far-right battalions, that started fighting on behalf of Kyiv. And pretty soon it acquired a record of war crimes, it acquired a record of violence, and also of attracting far-right figures. They are extremely effective. They are extremely well organized. They have a wonderful propaganda wing that whitewashes them. But they are neo-Nazi. They use neo-Nazi symbols. Their division — if you look at their insignia, it’s modeled after several neo-Nazi symbols, ones that have been seen in Charlottesville.

This is a battalion that should not be — the news organizations should not be using them. All it does is, A, play into Russian propaganda, and, B, it gives them legitimacy, which they absolutely should not be getting, because they are white supremacists. And it’s shameful to see news organizations use videos from Azov. It was shameful the Financial Times actually interviewed the leader of Azov, who is a committed neo-Nazi, and they gave him a platform. And it’s been extremely disturbing to see this group being legitimized. Japan just took them off the list of their terrorism. They have a list of terror groups, and then they just took them off the list.

And, I mean, I cannot stress this enough: Support Ukraine. Support the people who are not white supremacists. That’s the overwhelming majority of Ukraine. Do not support this formation. Do not support it, because they are white supremacists. They are wonderful for Putin’s propaganda. And they are seeking to get international fighters to come to Ukraine and learn how to kill, which is the absolute worst thing we want.

AMY GOODMAN: So, do you see parallels between them and the mujahideen of Afghanistan, where the U.S., you know, supported the mujahideen, gave them weapons, and then they turned those weapons on the United States? The same thing here, I mean, you’ve got this massive, unprecedented amount of weapons going into Ukraine right now. Does Azov Battalion get them?

LEV GOLINKIN: Short story is yes. There’s already been proof that they’ve gotten, for example, rifles, sniper rifles. There is proof that they’ve been getting training over the past — and this has been happening over the past eight years, while myself and others have been writing, saying, “Listen, this group needs to be taken care of. This group needs to be disbanded.” It should not be operational in Ukraine. All it does is it hurts Ukraine.

And so, yes, they have absolutely received training; they have absolutely received weapons. And a lot of the times, unfortunately, the people who are training — and I’ve talked to some of the people who are training them on the ground — they don’t know who’s in Azov or not. They don’t — a lot of the times, they don’t come wearing T-shirts that say they’re in Azov. And it just turns out that, later, when people look at social media and they figure out who’s who, it turns out that, yes, we do wind up training these people. And they’ve met — they’ve had people from NATO come over and train with them. And it’s just — it’s a horrible — it’s a horrible look. It shouldn’t be done. Support Ukraine. Don’t support the tiny part of it that happens to be an actual white supremacist battalion.

AMY GOODMAN: Now let me ask you about Putin reportedly appointing this new general, army General Aleksandr Dvornikov, to head the next phase of the war in Ukraine — served in Chechnya in the ‘90s; 2015, became the first Russian commander to lead military operations in Syria; since 2016, has overseen the Southern Military District, which includes Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula seized by Russia in 2014. What do you know about him?

LEV GOLINKIN: I know what everybody knows, that this is a person who takes a total war approach, for whom civilians are part of the war, and who has certain just utter lack of restraint and — well, “lack of restraint” is a bad — he’s shown just a willingness and a strategy that involves murdering civilians. So, the fact that he’s on there and the fact that he has such a track record should tell you exactly what’s in store for eastern Ukraine.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, if you can talk about what you think needs to happen right now, as you see, as you described it in your New York Times column, your country being erased?

LEV GOLINKIN: One is put as much sanctions as you can. For eight years, the sanctions that have been put on Moscow have been extremely weak. It is only now that they’re actually starting to do sanctions that hurt. Because that’s the problem with sanctions: The real sanctions, the ones that have an impact, also wind up hurting us. You know, there’s a sacrifice that needs to be done. And that is the number one thing.

And the number two thing is, as stupid as it sounds, if you’ve done everything you can, and if you’re just sitting there and you don’t know what to do, OK, learn a little bit about Ukraine, because Putin’s entire premise in his entire war effort is to say that Ukraine doesn’t exist; Ukraine is basically this backwards area of Russia that’s just wayward and just, you know, a bunch of peasants. OK? And what he’s trying to do is trying to say the Ukrainian language is not a language, it’s really just a dialect; the Ukrainian culture is not a culture, it’s really just a backward folklore. Learn a little bit about Ukraine. OK? If you just are sitting there and you have nothing else to do, OK, learn about the culture. Learn about — they have these — we have these wonderful headdresses, for example, these gorgeous headdresses, the national dress styles. Learn about the history. I mean, Kyiv Rus was an empire that had trading from Scandinavia to Afghanistan. I mean, it was this incredible first Slavic empire before Moscow was known to anybody, back when Moscow was just a pile of mud. Putin wants to erase Ukraine in an existential way. So, if you’ve donated, if you’ve called your member of Congress, if you’ve done everything else, if you’ve helped a refugee, you know what? Then — and if you have a little bit of time, if you want to go against Putin, then learn a little bit about this culture, learn about this land.

AMY GOODMAN: Lev Golinkin, I want to thank you for being with us, Ukrainian American journalist, reported extensively on the Ukraine crisis. We’ll link to your piece in the Times, author of A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka: A Memoir of Soviet Ukraine.

Next up, we look at a fund led by the Saudi crown prince that’s invested $2 billion in a private equity firm run by Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. Stay with us.

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